British Romanticism and Italian Literature: Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting

By Laura Bandiera; Diego Saglia | Go to book overview

Edoardo Zuccato (IULM)


Writing Petrarch’s Biography: From Susanna Dobson (1775)
to Alexander Fraser Tytler (1810)

Petrarch’s poetry played a major role in the revival of the sonnet in late eighteenth-century British literature.
Enthusiasm for his poetry was preceded and fostered by an interest in his life, and the most important biography
was Susanna Dobson’s The Life of Petrarch. Collected from Memoires pour la vie de Petrarch (1775), an
abridged translation of the Abbé de Sade’s monumental Mémoires pour la vie de François Pétrarque (1764).
These works transformed the love-story of Petrarch and Laura into a potentially adulterous relationship. The most
direct riposte to Sade and Dobson came from Alexander Fraser Tytler who, in 1784, published an Essay on the
Life and Character of Petrarch
to refute their view of Petrarch and Laura. In 1810 he brought out a second,
expanded version of his essay, which included the former pamphlet as part I of the book. This essay offers a
reconstruction of this controversy and an assessment of the moral implications of Dobson’s and Sade’s ‘Petrarch’
to open up new insights into the Romantic-period debate on the sonnet and, especially, its lively and often harsh
tones.

It is well known that Petrarch’s poetry played a relevant role in the revival of the sonnet that took place in Britain in the late eighteenth century. As poetry was never a merely technical enterprise, especially in an age when art and life were often intertwined, British attention to Petrarch was not confined to his verse. In fact, an interest in the poet’s life preceded and fostered the enthusiasm for his poetry, which is autobiographical and lends itself ideally to a mixed interest of this type.

If we look at chronology, the date that marks the real beginning of the eighteenthcentury British revival of interest in Petrarch is 1775, the year of publication of The Life of Petrarch. Collected from Memoires pour la vie de Petrarch. It is a biography in two bulky volumes that Susanna Dobson abridged and translated from the most important biography of Petrarch of the time, the Abbé de Sade’s Mémoires pour la vie de François Pétrarque (Amsterdam, 1764).1 The main aim of Sade’s monumental study (three huge quarto volumes) was to correct some biographical conjectures that had long been taken as facts in Petrarch criticism. In particular, he did his best to find out the real identity of Laura and the main events of her life. Sade argued that she was a Laura de Noves who married an ancestor

1 Dobson’s translation was published by Buckland, London, 1775. The complete title of Sade’s work is Mémoires pour la vie de François Pétrarque, tirés de ses Œuvres et des auteurs contemporains; Avec des Notes ou Dissertations, et les Pièces justificatives, 3 vols (Amsterdam: Arskée et Mercus, 1764), which appeared without the author’s name.

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